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Sunderland playing 'mental catch up' after Reading postponement
AS his side prepare for their third away game in the opening four Premier League matches, Martin O'Neill has claimed Sunderland are still dealing with the psychological fall-out from last month's postponed home game with Reading.
The Black Cats travel to West Ham United this afternoon defending an unbeaten record after drawing their opening three games of the season against Arsenal, Swansea and Liverpool.
Yet with every team bar Reading having played four matches to their three, they find themselves down in 15th position as they head to Upton Park.
The league table remains at a formative stage and a win this afternoon would potentially see Sunderland shoot into a top-ten slot, but O'Neill nevertheless regards the events of August 25, when the Wearsiders' scheduled home game was called off because of a waterlogged pitch, as a handicap his side are still having to overcome.
“I think the missing of the Reading game has been a blow,” said the Black Cats boss. “We can't guarantee anything would have happened in that match, but when you're 15 games into the season, being one game behind doesn't matter.
“At the minute, psychologically you feel as if you're catching up. When the next international break comes, we'll have played two home games and four away and that is tough.”
Sunderland's performances thus far have been something of a mixed bag. An impressive opening-day point at Arsenal owed much to a resolute defensive display, but the Black Cats then proceeded to concede the lead twice as they drew 2-2 at Swansea.
Last weekend's 1-1 draw with Liverpool was probably a fair result given the visitors' dominance in the second half, and O'Neill has challenged his players to channel the positive moments from their opening three matches into a complete 90-minute display.
“I definitely think we can get better for longer,” he said. “That's the main point to make. There have been little periods when we've played well, but we have to sustain that for longer.
“Should we have more points? Well we've played at Arsenal and Swansea and home to Liverpool, so I think the points we have on the board is just about right. We'll start winning a game or two I've no doubt about that, and obviously the sooner the better.”
Today's game pits Sunderland against a West Ham side that have started the season impressively following last season's promotion from the Championship.
Sam Allardyce's side have recorded home wins over Aston Villa and Fulham so far, securing two clean sheets in the process, and while the absence of former Newcastle United striker Andy Carroll with a hamstring injury is clearly a blow, there is still an experienced core that runs throughout the Hammers line-up.
Allardyce has always set his sides up to play in a certain way, and Sunderland can expect to face a barrage of long balls and a hard-working West Ham midfield as they look to secure their first league win of the season.
Some purists regard Allardyce's style as a throwback, but O'Neill does not see things that way and argues the long ball is more prevalent within the English game than some would imagine.
“There's nothing wrong with the way they're (West Ham) set up,” he said. “We watched the game on Monday between Everton and Newcastle and both teams were playing with big men either up front or just off the centre-forward.
“It was a very exciting game, but eventually there was many a long ball into the penalty box. There was still plenty of football played in other parts of the field, but every one to their own.
“You know what you're going to get with Sam's teams. Last season he was playing in a very difficult league to get out of, but you would have backed West Ham to get out of it because Sam was in charge. Similarly, you would back West Ham to stay up because Sam is in charge.
“We would all love to play like Barcelona, but it isn't always possible. This is a tough test. I thought the other three games were a pretty tough test because we had to play without the ball on occasion. This is a different test, but nevertheless a tough one.”
Sunderland will make a decision on Adam Johnson 's participation this morning, with the winger still suffering from the thigh injury that forced his early return from international duty with England. Carlos Cuellar is unavailable because of a hamstring problem, but Danny Rose will line up at left-back.